One of the worst parts of my job is that I often have to be the bearer of bad news. Recently, a woman called my office for information about receiving some of her partner’s retirement benefits. She was convinced that because she had lived with her partner for nineteen years, she had a “common law marriage” and should be treated like any other spouse. Her partner recently died and she needed help.
Unfortunately, however, Arkansas does not recognize “common law marriage.” In fact, Arkansas has never recognized “common law marriage.” This news was devastating to her because it meant that those nineteen years she lived with her partner meant nothing—she had no more rights to those retirement benefits than I did.
The State of Arkansas does recognize “common law marriages” if the parties gained that status in another state. So, for instance, if a couple lived in Texas (which allows common law marriages) and had done all the things to establish a valid common law marriage there, Arkansas would recognize that marriage just as if it were a “normal” marriage. But it is impossible—no matter if a couple acts like they are married for 60 years—to get married in Arkansas without going through the formal process.
One party may be “estopped” from denying the marriage, which may provide some benefit, but no employer or government entity is going to allow marriage by estoppel to affect spousal benefits.
The woman had made a costly mistake by simply assuming that she had a legal marriage.
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